Faithful called to defend refugee rights

By Quinton Amundson, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – “Azadeh’s” 30 days in immigration detention began as a time “of hope and protection” but quickly deteriorated to one of worry, according to the mental health researcher who tracked the 11-year-old refugee’s time in detention.

Dr. Rachel Kronick, a Jewish assistant professor in McGill University’s psychiatry department, shared findings and observations from her qualitative and ethnographic investigations about how children and families experience detention, sharing Azadeh’s story in a mid-February webinar hosted by Human Rights Watch and Citizens for Public Justice.

Kronick interviewed parents directly while younger kids told their stories through sand tray therapy, a non-verbal activity that allows children who experienced trauma to build a miniature world out of sand or toys that reflect their own life. She met with Azadeh, who was detained for 30 days in Canada after already enduring three months of confinement in Mexico, throughout and after her detention.

While her first sand tray world included imagery like a police car, fencing and security with “a rigid organization,” Kronick said Azadeh’s story “was one of hope and protection” as the youth communicated happiness to be in a country where her family is free and safe.

But Azadeh’s sand creation after her release, while again featuring a toy police car and fences, communicated a very different message.

“She told me, ‘this guy was watching us so we could not go outside. These guys were watching us not to flee. These animals were watching us. Watchdogs. We went outside. For example, if we want to go outside, we have to go out with the permission of Mr. X. He is always with us wherever we go,’ ” said Kronick.

Kronick asked Azadeh what might happen as she experiences life outside of detention. According to Kronick, the girl suggested “the situation may stay the same or get worse,” and instead of “one person watching us, two (people) will be watching us like this.”

She added “no longer were these images ones of protection. Instead these protective images became ones of danger and threat.”

Kronick was one on the multi-faith panel who shared insights on the detention of refugees during the webinar, titled Human Rights Violations in Canadian Immigration Detention – An Interfaith Call to Action.

Hanna Gros, Human Right Watch Canada’s immigration and refugee lawyer and disability rights consultant, shared findings from her June 2021 report called “‘I Didn’t Feel Like a Human in There’: Immigration Detention in Canada and Its Impact on Mental Health.”

The report, with testimony from over 90 interviewees, presented a couple key statistical revelations. According to data obtained from Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), “between April 2019 and March 2020, Canada locked up 8,825 people between the ages of 15 and 83, including 1,932 in provincial jails.” Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also discovered “that, since 2016, Canada has held more than 300 immigration detainees for longer than a year.”

Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton, a United Church of Canada minister, focused her presentation on both detailing religious communities’ extensive history of welcoming and refugees and expressing “an imperative for the faith communities to act” on this societal issue.

Hamilton, the general secretary for the Canadian Council of Churches from 2002 to 2017, said all faith traditions share a version of the Golden Rule that teaches care for your fellow man or woman. Defending refugees would be a manifestation of this foundational principle. She added that the Christian and Jewish faiths are also called to care for “the widow, orphan and the sojourner.”

Hamilton ended her talk with an appeal for everyone “to do better.”

“What are we willing as faith communities to do? How do we drive forward this imperative? What cost shall we pay in order to ensure human dignity for all people?

The human dignity called for in all faith traditions, and the human dignity called for every person facing immigrant detention. We can do better as a country and as faith communities,” she said.

Ahmad Attia, the CEO of the public affairs firm Incisive Strategy and a board member for the Muslim Council of Peel, Peel Police Service Board and Human Rights Watch Canada, shared his experience as an advocate for governance and reform for law enforcement. He mentioned the history of Muslim communities escaping authoritarian regimes to migrate to Canada.

“Many of these families are subjected to discrimination on arrival and in immigration detention,” said Attia. “Immigration detention, particularly, stigmatizes refugees who are often treated like people incarcerated for criminal offenses. The Canadian Muslim community has been calling for addressing Islamophobia and discrimination through the CBSA and the refugee system for several years.

“From a faith perspective, in Islam, asylum is a right for anyone seeking protection. Islam obliges host societies to give asylum seekers a generous reception. The holy Qur’an requires Muslims to protect refugees.”